An enlightened DECC may well have enabled much more than just smart meters

An enlightened DECC may well have enabled much more than just smart meters

In mid-August a low keyed press release told a largely indifferent world that O2 had won a £1.5 billion contract and BT/Arqiva a £625m contract to provide radio links to 10’s of millions of smart electricity meters across the country. We may to come to looks back on this date as when the UK gifted itself an enormous opportunity to take control of the world around us well beyond electricity usage. It could be the time when the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) unlocked the door to the commercial viability of the mobile “Internet of Things” on a mass scale.

The “Internet of Things” is one of the “big ideas” that has been gathering momentum but at two quite distinct speeds. The fast lane is the fixed broadband network for the Internet of Things. It is an open road. The network exists, bandwidth is free and cheap WiFi devices are already getting embedded in all manner of things from printers to cameras.

The slow lane had been the “mobile” network for the Internet of Things. It has always been a puzzle to many as to why? The mobile networks exist and there are cheap GSM devices a plenty. Bandwidth may not be free but data has been cheap enough to take cost of a few kilo-bytes of data so low as to rule out unit cost as a barrier to growth.

The barrier has been that a mobile network “Internet of Things” needs an intermediary service provider. And the problem for that mobile service provider has been finding a viable business process that can make financial sense of connecting 10’s of millions of devices where the revenue from any single device may not exceed 10p a week. This is where the smart meter communications contracts from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to O2 and BT/Arqiva has just smashed through this barrier. The UK now has not one but two competing service providers with operations that can do exactly this.

O2 is using their 900 MHz GSM network backed up by a mesh radio network for the difficult cases. They will be serving central and southern England and Wales. BT/Acqiva are using a proprietary technology and have been given the north of England and Scotland to cover.

Whoever in DECC has adjudicated these tenders has done a very good job. The BT/Arqiva system will use Arqiva’s spectrum at 412 MHz whose propagation characteristics are well matched to the very difficult Scottish terrain they’ve been given to cover. But it will not cost them much to push this network south to serve new non-DECC customers as relatively few base stations will be needed and Arquiva already have the sites in their portfolio. O2 already have good GSM coverage in the north of England and the populated parts of Scotland. So for half the price DECC have given themselves nearly 100% back-up and laid the foundation for very competitive bids in 15 years when the current contracts expire. O2 have also made a public statement in their proposal that the GSM network will be around for at least another 15 years.

Where it gets really exciting is the potential of using these two competitive platforms and delivery processes for attacking the latent wider UK Internet of Things mass market. If the two companies really go for it the Smart Meter market could be relatively small beer…a mere stepping stone to a much bigger contribution to national efficiency and well-being. Anything and everything is now open to being measured, its presence detected, its performance monitored (or whatever) and we now have in place two competing low cost means of economically conveying this data back to a point of intelligence to process and act upon. DECC has set the price point of 10p per week per device (the contract price divided by 30m homes and 15 years) but with competition in place the price can only go south for the next tranche of mass applications. Health, transport, the environment, farming and many other areas of activity could all be made more efficient if we knew instantly what was going on and able to react to it in real time.

Once the UK mobile Internet of Things market reaches commercial viability other technologies are waiting in the wing to deal with the challenge of ultra low power consumption, such as the Neul “weightless” technology and even suitable new spectrum is being lined up for it by Ofcom in the form of the White Space spectrum.

This decision has its critics, particularly from the Power Line Technology supporters who claim a lower cost for their technology. But the critics have tunnel vision. Power Line Technology has two disadvantages. First it entrenches local power line monopolies…always a bad thing in principle. But far more serious is that it would have created little or no national benefits beyond the smart meter. Other home applications are more likely to get picked up on WiFi (due to its global momentum) and power line technologies do not operate beyond the front door. The BT/Arqiva and O2 networks cover almost the entirety of the UK land mass and in the case of the GSM network…the entire world. That is vision! It is strategic “enlightened public purchasing” at its best.

Twenty years from now my money is on huge praise being heaped on the visionaries in DECC for catalysing a long list of national benefits that we all found essential to our lives two decades from now and I for one would not be surprised if smart meters were not even at the very top of that list.


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